Friday, February 1, 2013

Civil War Style Potholder Quilt

 Today I'm sharing details of my latest project (#6 on the list), a Civil War Style Potholder Quilt.  I was inspired to make this quilt by an exhibit at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, a couple of years ago.  The quilts in the exhibit were made in a unique way--each block was quilted and bound, and then joined with the other blocks.  Kind of like making a bunch of potholders, and putting them together.  Many of the quilts on display were made for Union soldiers during the Civil War, by ladies' groups.  I have always loved history, especially the Civil War, and combining that with quilt history was a dream come true.  My poor husband was very patient while I poured over the exhibit, and even while I shopped in the gift shop.  (He just took a book with him, and sat on a bench to read.  Am I lucky or what?)
Below is the recent book that chronicles the known Union Civil War soldiers' quilts.  If you are interested in quilt history, you will have heard of the authors Pam Weeks and Don Beld.  Don also heads a group that makes quilts to honor fallen soldiers in our current wars.
I knew when I saw the exhibit that I wanted to try this potholder technique.  Getting the book at Quilt Expo in September really reinforced that.  Plus I bought two bags of old fabric at the New England Quilt Museum that day.  They were in the consignment section.  Some were pieces from old clothes or quilts, others were just scrap bag remnants.  I separated them into late 19th-early 20th century and 1930s-1950s.  I knew I wanted to use the oldest fabrics to make a potholder quilt.
My friend Debbie and I had a two-person retreat last weekend, while her husband was at a conference.  We had a lovely time, sewing and visiting.  Before I went, I had to decide what project to bring.   The potholder idea popped up in my head again.
 Most of my projects were at the quilting stage, and I didn't want to drag my quilting treadle to Madison.  It probably wouldn't fit in the Mustang anyway.  I knew I wanted to take a hand crank sewing machine, just because I hadn't done that for a while.  My first thought was my Singer model 12, which would be appropriate for the time period of the fabrics and the design.  The only problem with the model 12 (and with most hand cranks) is winding the bobbin.  I enjoy sewing with the hand cranks, but winding bobbins is a pain.  And if we were going to be sewing all weekend, I would need a lot of bobbins.  I have a model 12 treadle, and I don't mind winding the bobbins on it, but I haven't used it for a while and it isn't running very smoothly yet.
My next thought--what about a hand crank that doesn't need a bobbin?  What about my little Willcox and Gibbs?
I bought her several years ago on Ebay.  The hand crank actually came from a guy in England.  I got her up and running right away, but I had never made a project with her.  Plus this was a chain stitch machine.  Can you even make quilt blocks with a chain stitch machine?  Would the seams pull out?
I thought about it for a while.  Willcox and Gibbs sold sewing machines for over 100 years in this basic design.  Most people made clothes with them.  If the clothes didn't come apart, why would the quilt blocks?  The seams would actually be protected inside the quilt, rather than rubbing against other clothes or skin.
In the end, I decided to live dangerously.  Not only did I use the Willcox and Gibbs, I cut the pieces for the blocks from the old fabric I bought at the museum, plus other old fabrics in my collection.  And I used some of my collection of old thread to sew with--the little wooden spools fit very well on the machine.  I combined lots of old stuff that I love--sewing machine, fabric, thread, and quilt style.
I can't believe how well it all worked.  The machine was easy to carry, and it was wonderful not having to worry about running out of bobbin.  I bonded with the machine as I made the blocks.  I even learned how to thread it without running for my copy of Charles Law.  It was so quiet, we had no trouble talking over it or hearing Downton Abbey on the DVD player.  I was almost sorry when I finished making the blocks.
Here's what I've got done so far:

The stack on the left is layered with a backing square and cotton batting (I'm using up the batting scraps!), ready to be quilted.  The center stack is quilted, and just needs to be bound.  I'm binding each side separately.  According to the book, the blocks will be more square this way than if I bound all of it at once.  We'll see how it turns out.  The last stack is the finished blocks. It really does look like a stack of potholders.
I'm quilting and binding the blocks on the Davis Vertical Feed treadle, which works like a built-in walking foot.  So far I have 12 blocks completely finished, out of an eventual 48.
Here are the 12, side by side.  When I have them all done, I'll slip stitch them together by hand.  Then I'll figure out what sort of inscription to put in the plain center squares of each block.
The slowest part is binding each square.
I started out by sewing the binding strips to the back and folding them to the front to stitch them down, like I do with charity quilts.  There was no way I was doing all this binding by hand.  I tried doing it the opposite way (front first, then back), and actually liked it better:
You can see the stitching, but it looks like the quilting.
This is definitely an unusual project, but I am having lots of fun with it.
Happy Sewing!
P.S.  Click on the number of comments to leave your own comment.


  1. Great minds think alike!! Hehehe...I've been using my W&G for piecing a quilt and am truly convinced that is this is the way to go for straight stitch piecing. Nothing I like more than NOT having to fuss with a bobbin. The little W&G just goes, and goes and goes. We definately think alike because I use my Davis VF2 for binding as well. ;-) Nice blog!!

  2. Great couple of posts. I have been inspired to try the potholder technique. I think it will look nicer on the back than the usual way of joining QAYG quilts.


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